Wednesday, March 23, 2011

It's my turn to speak

review of

Swallow
by Sefi Atta
Interlink books 2010

The book opens with a dialogue between two friends on the bus, on their way to work, after narrowly escaping a possible accident. Rose talks a lot, and preferably about what her friend Tolani should do with her life and her boyfriend, while Tolani herself only gives laconic replies. Both face an uphill struggle trying to survive in the chaotic metropolis of Lagos, Nigeria, in a society dominated by men who tend to be unreliable, molesting, or even criminal.

Tolani doesn’t appear to be very good at getting her way through dialogue, even though there is a lot of it going on. Somehow, it never goes her way, and she always ends up swallowing her pride. Her employers kick her around, her useless boyfriend squanders her savings, her mother tells her everything except what she needs to know, and her friend Rose signs the pair of them up for a trip as drug mules, which, again, requires Tolani to swallow her pride, not to mention a condom filled with cocaine.

With its colourful representation of everyday life in Nigeria, this short novel (like Atta’s debut, Everything good will come) is very engaging - at least in the short term, for 10 or 20 pages. I especially enjoyed the swipes at us western people (“oyinbo” seems to be the Yoruba equivalent to “gringo”), such as: “… oyinbos write theories about things they can’t understand, and by the time they finish, you can’t understand either, even if they’re writing about you.” (p. 167) However, given the very slow pace of the progress our heroine makes, the reading experience is also a little bit frustrating in the longer term. This may very well be intentional, reflecting the frustration that this woman suffers every day. (Atta's debut novel was a coming of age story, so there naturally was a bit more of direction to it.) Only in the very last paragraph she seems to have picked herself up. “It’s my turn to speak,” she says. About time, too.



amazon.co.uk

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